Joan Peters, From Time Immemorial: The Origins of the Arab-Jewish Conflict Over Palestine (New York: Harper and Row, 1984).
Joan Peters’ book was published in the spring of 1984. Its jacket was covered with endorsements from Barbara W. Tuchman, Saul Bellow, Angier Biddle Duke, Philip M. Hauser, Elie Wiesel, Lucy Dawidowicz, Paul Cowan, Barbara Probst Solomon and Arthur J. Goldberg. Each endorsement testified to the book’s immense importance: Tuchman described it as “a historical event in itself,” and Bellow modestly stated that “millions of people the world over, smothered by false history and propaganda, will be grateful for this clear account of the origins of the Palestinians.” After eight hardcover printings, Harper and Row has now issued a paperback edition of the book, bearing all these endorsements (minus that of Barbara Probst Solomon) plus a new one from Theodore H. White.
With only two exceptions, From Time Immemorial received favorable reviews in the American press. (Though as we shall see, its reception in Britain and Israel was almost uniformly negative.) Everyone — except for those two reviewers and Robert Olson, who dismissed the book in American Historical Review — commented on Peters’ astonishingly thorough scholarship and her unprecedented findings. That assessment was made by relative amateurs (Walter Reich in The Atlantic and Timothy Foote in the Washington Post) as well as by seasoned pros (Daniel Pipes in Commentary, Ronald Sanders in The New Republic and John Campbell in the New York Times). The general impression was that Joan Peters had at last done all the work necessary to settle one of the most vexing and persistent problems of the twentieth century. No longer could a scholar or propagandist argue that “the Palestinians” (Peters entitled everyone to enclose the designation of a people in the quotation marks of suspicion) were in fact a real people with a real history in “Palestine.” Her book asserted that their national as well as actual existence, and consequently their claims on Israel, were at best suspect and at worst utter fabrication. In other words, From Time Immemorial relieved Israel and its supporters of responsibility for the refugees created by the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948, and for the subject people of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Although From Time Immemorial is clearly relevant to the contemporary debate about the Middle East in the United States, its peculiar distinction is to present itself as a full-scale history ab origine of the Palestine problem, which ventures to prove that the Palestinians are and have always been propaganda. How that strikes those of us who have memories of communal life in Haifa, Jerusalem, Safad, Jaffa and Nazareth before 1948 I shall leave to the reader’s imagination. Peters claims that a careful rereading of demographic evidence shows that the British (and of course “the Arabs”) suppressed evidence about the number of illegal Arab immigrants in Palestine before 1948. She argues that most of the 1948 refugees were in reality people who had not come to Palestine until 1946 and who therefore cannot possibly be considered true inhabitants of Palestine “from time immemorial.” In any case, she says, their number has always been inflated for propaganda purposes — a fairly routine Israeli claim in the 1950s and 1960s, now discarded.
As for the tiny handful of “real” Arab inhabitants in “uninhabited” Palestine, they did a lot of what Peters calls “in-migrating,” moving from place to place in Palestine, and were therefore little more than nomads. Given the history of Arab hatred of Jews, which Peters rehearses in much detail, she concludes that “the Palestinians” — who had been attracted by Jewish prosperity to those parts of Palestine from which they were later evicted — are a trick foisted on Israel and the rest of the gullible world merely to expedite the malevolent designs of Arab and Muslim anti-Semitism. Besides, she says, since many Jews expelled from the Arab world came to Israel after 1948, there was, at very least, parity in the movements of dispossessed people in and out of Palestine.
Nor is this all. Peters tells us that her research was carried out in a spirit of sympathy with the Arab refugees, that she visited them in their miserable camps and studied their history, culture and leaders at close range. That protestation was made much of by reviewers who found that it gave her conclusions the credibility of a genuine discovery arrived at by compassionate research. So obviously well-intentioned a person could have been converted only by the factual evidence she has so dutifully unearthed. (Peters does not mention in the body of the text that she wrote an article, “An Exchange of Populations,” in the August 1976 issue of Commentary, where her notions about inveterate Arab anti-Semitism are trundled forth, along with the exchange-of-Arabs-for-Jews idea, all in a prose quite free of sympathy for the poor Arab refugees.)
From Time Immemorial bolsters its appearance of legitimacy by including an impressive list of mentors and scholarly authorities, whom Peters thanks profusely. This list of worthies (Peters implies they are virtually her collaborators) includes famous Orientalists like Elie Kedourie, Bernard Lewis and P. J. Vatikiotis. Not one of these men is known for his Arab sympathies, which is probably why not a single one has made any attempt to dissociate himself from her or her ideas even though evidence of her numerous errors and falsifications has been circulating for some time. Besides, their respectability has not been threatened, so why should they bother about so trivial a question as the scholarly truth of Peters’ book?
For someone with no academic credentials, and with only the sketchiest foreign policy and press background, Joan Peters has now become something of an authority on Arab-Jewish matters for the media (non-fiction’s answer to Leon Uris). Interviews with her dot newspapers and magazines across the country, and she has been a guest on numerous radio and television talk shows. From Time Immemorial has received, according to Peters, “200 to 300” favorable reviews and, in the spring of this year, won a prize in the Jewish Book Council’s Israel category.
The two exceptions to this quite extraordinary outpouring of praise were an article in the September 11, 1984 issue of In These Times, by Norman Finkelstein, a graduate student at Princeton University, and a review in the fall 1984 Journal of Palestine Studies by Bill Farrell, a law student at Columbia University. In what I shall now relate, both young men played courageous roles, and if I speak more about Finkelstein it is to note his amazing persistence despite odds that would have deterred almost anyone else. Finkelstein showed that Peters’ work was what he called a “hoax”: her evidence was unsound in all sorts of ways; her demographic statistics were inconsistent, mathematically impossible, wildly exaggerated; and, most important, in all the cases he was able to check, she either plagiarized Zionist propaganda sources or deliberately tampered with quotations so as to change their meaning entirely. Much of one chapter, for example, is lifted — mistakes and all — from Ernst Frankenstein’s Justice for My People, published in 1942. In one place illegal Arab immigration is suggested as “at least” 200,000; in another, 370,000; in a third, 1,300,000; in a fourth, 3,700,000. Taking the same approach Farrell came up with similar results. When, for example, Peters quotes from the Hope Simpson Report of 1930, she transforms the phrase “Egyptian labour is being employed in certain individual cases” to “According to that Report, evidence of Arab immigration abounded: ‘Egyptian labor is being employed.’” Where the Anglo-American Survey of Palestine (1945-1946) says that in October 1942 “as a matter of emergency” 3,800 laborers were brought into Palestine from Syria and Lebanon, Peters says: “What the official Anglo-American Survey of 1945-1946 definitively disclosed…is that…tens of thousands of ‘Arab illegal immigrants’ [were] recorded as having been ‘brought’ into…Palestine.” And so on and on.
Since the core of Peters’ case was based on a (mis)reading of demographic evidence, both Farrell and Finkelstein took pains to check and recheck her findings, which they found unacceptable. What neither of them noted, however, is that the last census for Palestine was done under British mandate in 1931. No population estimates of twentieth-century Palestine can avoid its findings, which show a vast native Arab majority. Peters totally ignores that census, just as she ignores the authoritative demographic work of Janet Abu-Lughod, Justin McCarthy and others, whose conclusions are diametrically opposed to her own. Instead she relies on Ottoman statistics for the 1890s, compiled by Professor Kemal Karpat of the University of Wisconsin, and on the impressions of a nineteenth-century French traveler, Vital Cuinet. These do little more for her case than add a lot of numbers to what is already a tiresomely shrill text dotted with embarrassing errors, such as the use of medieval historian Maqrizi as an eyewitness source about nineteenth-century Palestine. (To his credit, Bernard Gwertzman noted the book’s offensive tone in his review for the New York Times on May 12, 1984.)
Despite undercurrents of suspicion about Peters’ book set off by Finkelstein, only two publications have followed up on his evidence and printed anything systematically critical of From Time Immemorial’s major points. In the Guardian and The Nation respectively, Noam Chomsky and Alexander Cockburn described what Peters and her ecstatic reviewers were up to, but no one else has paid much attention. At one point, Colin Campbell of the New York Times expressed some enthusiasm for writing an article like the one he had done on the David Abraham case, but then he dropped the matter.
When the book appeared in Britain this spring it received a vastly different set of reviews. It is worth citing a passage from one of those reviews to give some sense of the startling difference between Britain and the United States when it comes to discussion about the Middle East. The Observer assigned From Time Immemorial to Albert Hourani of Oxford University, probably the world’s foremost authority on modern Middle Eastern history. Not incidentally, no scholar of stature was granted the privilege of reviewing Peters in the United States, nor was it entrusted to someone not already known for his or her unqualified support for Israel. The single exception to this pattern may be the New York Review of Books, which reportedly assigned From Time Immemorial to Yehoshua Porath, the leading Israeli authority on Palestinian nationalism, an eminent historian and a man known for his moderate views about the Palestinians. To date, however, Porath’s article has not appeared, although Robert Silvers has assured me that he hopes the review will run sometime in the future. At any rate, here is the concluding part of Hourani’s review in the March 5 issue of the Observer:
Ms. Peters has found, or been provided with, a large number of documents, but most are well-known, and many of them she misunderstands or quotes out of context. She denounced British policy because she believes it broke the promise of the Balfour Declaration and the Mandate that Palestine “east and west of the Jordan river” should become a “Jewish homeland.” But the Declaration carefully avoided saying that Palestine should become a “Jewish homeland”; and the British decision to set up an Arab princedom in Transjordan, and exclude it from the area in which a Jewish, national home should be created, was in accordance with the terms of the Mandate.
Her argument that enormous numbers of Arabs came illegally into Palestine also has no basis. One of her few pieces of evidence is a statement made by an obscure Syrian official in 1934, that more than 30,000 Syrians had entered Palestine and settled there during a few months. The Permanent Mandates Commission asked a British representative for his opinion of this, and he said it was “grossly exaggerated.” Ms. Peters quotes the statement by the Syrian official but not the British reply; on the next page the statement becomes “verified by an official international document”; a little later it has become “hard evidence,” in the light of which British statements to the contrary can be dismissed as fallacious. The whole book is written like this: Facts are selected or misunderstood, tortuous and flimsy arguments are expressed in violent and repetitive language. This is a ludicrous and worthless book and the only mildly interesting question it raises is why it comes with praise from two well-known American writers.
In their 8,000-word essay for the London Review of Books, Ian and David Gilmour went painstakingly through From Time Immemorial, recording a huge number of its inconsistencies and falsifications, among them Peters’ suppression of the fact that no Jewish leader of note until, and even after, 1948 denied the presence of the native Arab Palestinian majority. The Gilmours note that Peters misleadingly bandies about population figures for “Jewish settled areas” but does not reveal that those areas amounted only to 4 or 5 percent of the whole country, or — a slightly more subtle tactic — that figures for Christian Arabs are simply left out. Peters’ revival of the canard about the Arabs leaving voluntarily is also dispatched by the Gilmours, as is her ludicrous contention that British policy encouraged Arab immigration into Palestine.
Similar reviews turned up in The Times Literary Supplement, the Spectator (which compared From Time Immemorial with Clifford Irving’s “autobiography” of Howard Hughes), Time Out and The Sunday Times, although Peters, whose contact with fact seems tentative, has described the British reviews as “excellent.” But perhaps the most revealing thing about this strange book was its reception in Israel this past spring. Most notices of the book were perfunctory and dismissive; Davar’s full-length review on March 29 treated it with unmistakable contempt. According to the reviewer, From Time Immemorial’s main defect was its embarrassing use of discredited Israeli hasbara (“propaganda”). It should be noted that most of Peters’ earth-shaking evidence about the non-existent Palestinians had already been used by official and semi-official Israeli information agencies during the 1950s and 1960s, and that it is now quite commonplace for Israeli government representatives to warn against reusing this worthless stuff. One gets the impression that Israel had written the book off when Peters appeared in the country to reap the glory of her personal, uniquely American hasbara effort. Hence, she was kept out of the public eye; she returned to the United States just in time to receive her Israel award in New York.
There are several curious facets to this egregious book. Many passages contain disconnected items all pressed into making the same point. The impression you get is of one team of experts tossing file cards into large folders labeled “Jews, Arab hatred of,” or “Palestinians, myths of,” and another team pasting them onto more or less consecutive pages. That Peters has nothing to say about the immense amount of Arab, or for that matter Israeli, material on Palestine, all of it easily enough available, is testimony to how narrowly focused, how dry and single-minded, is her effort. During the past five years alone there have been several volumes of original Arab documentation of Palestinian life in Palestine. (Scholars and reviewers interested in assessing Peters’ book may also consult two very recent works, Walid Khalidi’s fine Before Their Diaspora: A Photographic History of the Palestinians, 1876-1948, and Basheer K. Nijim and Bishara Muammar’s Toward the De-Arabization of Palestine-Israel, 1945-1977.) Such works prove that a native Arab community once flourished in Palestine, and that it was not simply the illegal, temporary presence of a small, shifty population of nameless vagrants sneaked in by rascally anti-Semitic British officials acting in cahoots with a worldwide network of Arab fanatics. Peters touches on none of this, nor does she refer to the large bibliography of scholarly Western works on the history of Palestine, many of which give the lie to her preposterous thesis.
Granted that Peters is an inept writer, a bad propagandist and a hopelessly incompetent historian, how is it that virtually no criticism of her work has appeared in the United States? Let us grant also that Harper and Row continues to ignore evidence of her falsifications and plagiarisms. Why do normally competent editors, historians, journalists and intellectuals go along with the fiction that From Time Immemorial is a wonderful work of historical discovery? Peters’ factual distortions and innumerable mistakes have been exhaustively documented by Norman Finkelstein, yet no one paid attention to him, no one followed his leads. No one paid the slightest heed to the British reviews, or to those in Israel. Worst of all, no one has demanded that Peters and her supporters respond to the huge list of accusations that her book has collected in the 18 months since it appeared. She still gives interviews to American journalists, cheerfully asserting the complete acceptance of her work.
I speak here less as a Palestinian who wants to keep saying “but we exist and always have and will,” than as an American intellectual disgraced by the shoddiness of our present so-called life of the mind. The Peters case is not just a matter of poor work. It is, after all, a case of orchestrated compliance by which the history and actuality of an entire people are consigned to non-existence. Where are all those guardians of intellectual morality who, in a chorus led by the Conor Cruise O’Briens and the Leszek Kolakowskis, whine about Communist and Third World disinformation and propaganda, who stalwartly defend American freedom of expression and healthy debate, who invoke Orwell and denounce totalitarianism? Has it come to this, then: an unconsciously held ideology that permits the most scandalous and disgusting lies — execrably written, totally disorganized, hysterically asserted — to pass as genuine scholarship, factual truth, political insight, without any significant challenge, demurral or even polite reservation?
The sad truth is that where discussion of Israel is concerned, the United States is well below Israel itself in norms of truth and methods of debate. Here then is a perfect illustration of Richard Hofstader’s “paranoid style” in American political life. This is not, alas, a matter of the left being better than the right. The young progressives who publish Radical History conscientiously avoid discussion of the Palestinians. Those who know better are cowed by the Israeli lobby. It is true that the American-Israeli Political Action Committee has been criticized in the press for its campus campaigns against those who have dared to speak out against Israel or to support Palestinian rights; yet how many deans and faculty members have raised their voices against the censorship and blackmail still applied by AIPAC against “enemies” on the nation’s campuses?
To read Peters and her supporters is, for Palestinians, to experience an extended act of ethnocide carried out by pseudo-scholarship. Tom Sawyer attends his own funeral as a kind of lark, whereas we are being threatened with death before being permitted birth. And we are told to stay out of the whole thing. The irony of this occurring in the United States at a time when so many effusions about Middle Eastern peace are perpetually stymied by US and Israeli actions designed to keep Palestinians out should not be difficult to detect. In this way — democratically — do intellectuals and the state sychronize their efforts to sweep the small people of this world under the rug.
The one thing I still cannot grasp is how people can be so foolish as to believe From Time Immemorial’s contention that the Palestinians are something made up or imaginary, like the unicorn or the tooth fairy. Why do Barbara Tuchman and Saul Bellow, for example, expect that four million of us, scattered everywhere, can be made to repeat the lie of our own existence for 35 years? Do they imagine that all of us get instructions from a central propaganda office? And, toughest question of all, how have we been as successful as Peters implies in uniting most of the Arab, Islamic, Third World, European and Socialist community in our cause if we are no more than a myth? Surely it would have been a lot less trouble for us simply to get a Palestinian state!
Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared in The Nation, October 19, 1985. It is reprinted here with permission of the editors and the author.